Mason Mount and Phil Foden are just two exciting young talents who now dominate the England side
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The sun was high in the Rustenburg sky, but the mood at the Royal Bafokeng sports campus was very low as the then-England manager Fabio Capello contemplated a crushing defeat to Germany in the last-16 of the 2010 World Cup finals, and the state of English footballers in general. The morning after another bad England day, he was asked for a small ray of hope: to name the players who might one day carry the national team to a brighter future.
Never one to immerse himself in the details of the English game, Capello gave it some thought. He mentioned Gabby Agbonlahor, then 23, who would never win another cap. “Bobby Zamora?” Capello offered. “I know he is not young.” Zamora was 29 years old at the time.
The England team was at crisis point. The alleged golden generation had failed to reach Euro 2008 and then an expensive Italian manager had scarcely improved tournament performance two years later. The percentage of England-eligible players in the Premier League was falling. Even worse, Germany were once again showing England how to do it. A German review of youth development that began in 1998 after defeat to Croatia in that year’s World Cup, and a mass academy building programme two years later, was paying off.
The Germany Under-21s team that beat England in the European championships final of 2009 would produce nine senior internationals, of which six – including Manuel Neuer, Mats Hummels and Mesut Ozil – would win the 2014 World Cup. In short, it was about to get worse for England – but it would get better, and largely because of the plans that had been put in place one year earlier, in 2009. Sunday is the 11-year anniversary of that 4-1 defeat in Bloemfontein, and on Tuesday England play Germany again at a major international tournament. There is the same trepidation about the result but some reassurance that the England manager is no longer wondering from where the next generation will come.
What changed? In 2011, the Premier League launched the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP), tearing up the academy system. It changed the philosophy of coaching players and educating coaches. EPPP increased contact coaching time. It improved facilities, recruitment, off-field support and it regulated the trade in English teenagers. Over at the Football Association, a new breed took over under technical director Dan Ashworth and Gareth Southgate, then the head of elite development.
At the FA, new coaches were appointed, a vision was set out for a pathway to becoming an England international and power shifted from Wembley to St George’s Park, opened in the Staffordshire countryside in 2012 as the long-awaited national centre for the game. Junior internationals against the home nations were scrapped in favour of playing the world’s greatest football nations and success followed at junior tournaments.
For the first time in years, the Premier League, the FA and the Football League were forced to align – driven by then the most powerful man in the game, Richard Scudamore, chief executive of the Premier League. He insisted on his 20 members pledging to huge funding in all 92 club academies under the auspices of EPPP, known in the game as “E, triple-p”. The children of that plan? They populate Southgate’s Euro 2020 squad now. Phil Foden, Mason Mount, Bukayo Saka, Jude Bellingham, Jadon Sancho, Reece James – to name just a few. Any current England player under the age of 26 will have been influenced to a greater or lesser degree by EPPP, and the changes at the FA.
Arsenal and England's Bukayo Saka has impressed at the Euros
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The author of EPPP was Ged Roddy, recruited by Scudamore from Bath University where he had created the success of Team Bath and played a role in improving the Olympics performance of Great Britain. “I can still remember my interview with Richard and Rick Parry,” Roddy says speaking to the Daily Telegraph. “I asked them: are you really serious about it?”
Scudamore was in no doubt. He had delivered Premier League clubs huge broadcast deals, and by 2009 was in the midst of confounding the economic downturn with another increase. But he could see a problem on the horizon with the falling number of English players and anger at the England team performance. He knew the Premier League would be blamed.
“Without Richard Scudamore you wouldn’t have got the momentum for EPPP,” Roddy says. “He was the biggest political beast and willing to put his power behind it.” At the beginning, Roddy also secured the private backing of the game’s then godfathers, Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger, who he says were both supportive. But there was a long battle to secure major changes. “I knew how intransigent football could be,” Roddy says. “At the time lots of people were fearful we would destroy the academy system. We didn’t get everything right but the investment was so significant it created a step change.”
Perhaps most divisive was the EPPP tariff system regulating the prices by which wealthier clubs with the highest-ranked category one academies could buy the talent from lower ranked, often Football League, peers. Not everyone liked it. Working with Scudamore to try to convince the Football League board, Roddy recalls the hostility.
The simple aim of EPPP was “more and better players” and from his work with British athletes, Roddy was confident clubs could produce better players. Whether it could produce lots more was less certain. He looked at how the French and Spanish had done it as well as the Germans. Every nation had different power dynamics within its football that shaped its approach. What the Premier League has was money to invest. “I won’t say we stole but we took a lot of what Germany did and we learned from them,” Roddy says, “and we also added from the Olympic domain.”
As he refined his final document, Roddy set up working groups of academy directors and leant on the experience of experts like Neil Bath, Chelsea’s influential head of youth and also the late Eamonn Dolan, then at Reading. The Premier League’s planning and projects director Peta Bistany, later the unwitting subject of a leaked email controversy, was a key figure in revising the 17 drafts of EPPP. In late 2011, Roddy and Scudamore considered EPPP ready to be put to a vote.
As the debate became more fraught at the decisive Premier League shareholders meeting, the then Wolverhampton Wanderers chief executive Jez Moxey spoke up strongly in favour of EPPP and doing what was right for the game. It passed the 14-vote threshold easily. The Football League vote was much closer: 46 of the 72 clubs came out in favour. Sixteen months on from the humiliation in Bloemfontein, English football had a plan at last.
Over at the FA it was another year until Ashworth arrived, having been supportive of EPPP during his time as technical director at West Bromwich Albion. It would be another two years, and another dismal World Cup finals in 2014, before then FA chairman Greg Dyke put Ashworth in complete control. In December of that year he presented the “England DNA” document as a blueprint for the modern England footballer at all levels. Prioritising technical ability over the early physical developers it promoted a culture in which players reviewed their own performances and set targets.
Among fans and media, disillusionment hung heavy from the poor showing in Brazil and interest in the FA’s plan was scarce. The public document itself was, even the FA would now concede, forgettable. In reality, it was still a work in progress, being refined by coaches and staff that included Southgate; Matt Crocker, head of development teams; and Dave Reddin, the performance and strategy director who had worked in rugby and with the Olympics Team GB. In private the FA believed it had a strong plan and had no intention of losing a competitive advantage by sharing it publicly.
A big problem for the FA was access to players. The clubs developed the players, and the FA had just 50 contact days a year with the boys – and girls – it hoped would become future internationals. In response they created more age-group teams at Under-15s, Under-18s and Under-20s level which would give them 150 more days over the span of a junior international career. Rather than tournaments against Scotland and Northern Ireland, they played the likes of Brazil and Spain – the nations senior England internationals would one day have to face at tournaments.
Many at the FA then can recall the first day a 14-year-old Foden, who looked 11, reported for international duty at St George’s Park sometime around late 2014. He was selected originally for the Under-15s but was so accomplished that the Under-16s wanted him. The new rule was that any player who went up an age group had to play. In the past, the best players had often been promoted only to find themselves sitting on the bench. By 2017, Foden would be the star of England’s Under-17s World Cup-winning team.
In the meantime, EPPP was already having an effect at the clubs. Roddy engaged a Belgian company to audit the clubs’ academies and give them rankings, from one to four, which were critical to funding and player recruitment. “I wasn’t always very popular with academy directors,” he admits. At Sunderland, for instance, the club had long been promising to turn what was “a big hole in the ground” into an indoor training centre. The auditors told them that if they did not do so immediately the academy would be downgraded to category two. Within six months it was built.
At all levels, the movement was disruptive. Some clubs, like Brentford, have since closed their academy. Others, like Exeter City, Roddy points out, have flourished. The volatile transfer fee tribunal system for young footballers, distrusted by buying clubs, was abolished. Watford, then in the Championship, lost a 14-year-old Sancho to Manchester City. But Roddy argued that if prices for top English teenage talent were too high, big clubs pre-Brexit would have looked to the European market and that would have defeated the purpose of EPPP. As it was, many top teenagers, like Bellingham and Kalvin Phillips, stayed with Football League clubs.
In 2017, the FA had a major breakthrough. England won World Cups at Under-17s and Under-20s level. The Under-19s won their Euros. Suddenly the football public were taking notice. Behind the scenes the change was noticeable. Players were more technically accomplished, less “robotic” says Roddy, and better able to make their own decisions on the pitch. There were also moments of good fortune. The short-lived reign of Sam Allardyce after Euro 2016 had propelled Southgate unexpectedly into the England senior job. Two years later he would reach the World Cup semi-finals in Russia.
England won the U-17 World Cup in 2017
All bar one of the key figures have now moved on. Roddy is technical director at Charlton Athletic, Ashworth does the same job at Brighton and Crocker at Southampton. Reddin has left the FA to found his own consultancy. The coaches who won junior World Cups, Steve Cooper and Paul Simpson, have moved on too. Scudamore has retired. Only Southgate remains. Having observed the past 11 years at close quarters, Roddy says that the England manager is critical to the future development of the English game. “I’m an absolute advocate for everything Gareth is doing,” he says. “He just gets it. And you need someone who does at the sharp end of the pencil.”
Roddy hopes that as well as better players, the next EPPP legacy will be a generation of better English managers and coaches. He points out that the German revolution a decade earlier has yielded the likes of Jurgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel. He also sounds a word of caution. Roddy now consults for Wenger at Fifa trying to find a way to introduce elite development practice across world football, and there he has met Ulf Schott, the German who lead his country’s development revolution a decade earlier.
“Ulf has been quite frustrated with where the German system is now,” Roddy says. “Germany is going through a massive rethink. They had great success and took their foot off the gas. They thought the job was done.”
An old truth about youth development is that it does not change overnight. Results – good or bad – can take 10 years to filter through, and without a senior international honour to show for it, English football is still a long way behind Germany, whoever wins on Tuesday.
“We tend to react to a crisis,” Roddy says, “and 2009 to 2010 was a low point. I hope whatever happens against Germany the challenge will always be to be ambitious about how we develop players.”